Mitch Snyder's funeral wasn't exactly front-page news. The Post ran the story in its D section. And without Snyder, the issue he championed -- homelessness -- seems destined for the back pages too.
But even before Snyder's death, homelessness had been rapidly receding from the center of America's concern. Yes, there are still saints among us -- the heroic corps of social workers and volunteers and nuns and priests who help the homeless. But great moral changes do not take place on the strength of heroes alone. For that, you have to reach the rest of us -- brave in a crowd, chicken on our own. Sadly, Mitch Snyder didn't have that reach.
Just a few years ago ordinary middle-class people, alarmed by the problem of the homeless, were willing to cross the street to put a dollar bill in a Styrofoam cup, even to work all night in a shelter once in a while. As much as anyone, Mitch Snyder was responsible for that attitude.
But most of us have a hard time being even moderately selfless for long. For example, an acquaintance told me that when he first moved to New York and saw a man lying in the street, he tried to revive him. The next time he saw a similar sight, he dialed 911. But by the end of his time in the city, he told me, he was stepping over bodies on the sidewalk and not looking down.
In the past few years, America has made that same transition from caring to callousness, and, as much as anyone, Snyder was responsible for that attitude too. His double-edged legacy is that he helped create a moment in which ordinary Americans cared about street people and were poised to do more for them -- and then, he let it slip away.
Make no mistake, Snyder should be loudly praised for using his gift for headline-grabbing on behalf of such a worthy cause. But hunger strikes and blood spilled on government steps really are no different from more "respectable" public relations ploys. They are essentially light first steps that need to be followed by a firm foothold. Snyder never took that second step toward the less flashy stage of activism, where solutions get sweated out. He put homelessness on the map, but he seemed to want to keep the map in his back pocket.
At first glance, Snyder looked a lot like his and our heroes -- Martin Luther King Jr. and Philip and Daniel Berrigan. But King's work led to civil rights laws that made peoples' lives palpably better. And the Berrigan brothers' protests helped make a war too unpopular to be continued, hence saving thousands of lives. In contrast, Snyder gave us Initiative 17 and the world's largest homeless shelter. And those gave us what?
Are the people Snyder warehoused better off than if he had led them off drugs and booze and forced them to get job training? I don't think so.
Last winter, for a story for The Washington Monthly, I spent several weeks in the District's streets. I went to wherever I could find homeless people -- to steam grates late at night, to city emergency shelters, to Snyder's place -- and I listened. Too often, my feelings for these sad people were overwhelmed by their own obstructive attitudes.
One man I got to know gladly took money I collected for him, but he walked away from every job opportunity I arranged for him. He said he wanted to shine shoes but only if he had a complete shoeshine stand. An upturned crate and a chair wouldn't do.
A woman I met, who split her begging between Dupont Circle and Georgetown, seemed to speak for many of Washington's homeless when she told me she hadn't tried to get into a job training program because she didn't have the time. "I just want something right now," she said. "Something I can just walk into and get right then and there."
It can't be an accident that this attitude was also Snyder's. On more than one occasion, Snyder lost out on sizable donations because of obstacles he created. When the government wanted to find out how many people were homeless, he wouldn't cooperate with the 1990 Census. He wasn't for telling homeless people how to run their lives, either, he constantly told us. I saw that as a result of Snyder's nonleadership, his D Street shelter was a chaos of booze and dope.
Mitch Snyder helped discover a social disorder. Then, instead of helping to cure it, he turned it into a life style. Perhaps in the aftermath of his death, the homeless movement will find someone who can lead us beyond that. The tragedy of Mitch Snyder, though, is that he left us less willing to follow. -- Scott Shuger is an editor at The Washington Monthly.